That was it for
Willard, however—no offers from the pros. "For me not to get drafted, even
looked at...." For a moment, Willard's distress shows. But then he shrugs.
"Always the assumptions," he says. "They look at me and say, 'Three
schools—this kid must have a bad attitude.' " The Chicago Blitz of the USFL
sent him a contract last winter—and then cut him before camp without even
taking a look. Chicago says it may give him another shot next season.
Still in his
athletic prime, Willard sits behind a desk at the unemployment office,
reminding himself that he's better off than the people he interviews.
"College was a protected world," he says. "I'm dealing with life
and death here, not a couple of books and classes." He works hard, makes
contacts and waits for his brothers to come out the other end of the football
machine. He'll have a place, he knows, in Browner, Inc. "As far as my
playing sports is concerned, there's a wall right now," he says. "And
I'm not gonna waste my life sayin', 'I gotta go through that wall.' "
Gerald was 12
when his father died. Ross became his guardian, and when Gerald got angry he'd
run in a rage to Julia. "He's not my daddy!" he would cry. "Why do
you let him tell me what to do?"
what to do was never easy. When he was 14, he supplemented his weightlifting by
picking up Volkswagens and turning them around on the street. Gerald's agility
and speed belied his bulk: He ruled the lane in basketball but could jump and
shoot, too. He pursued and overwhelmed running backs, dropping them in their
tracks, a human avalanche.
classroom work never kept pace with his playing feats. "He took it lighter
than football," says Ross. "We didn't have a father at home anymore, so
the drive wasn't there with Gerald to do his studies." Ross nagged him:
"Your mind's gonna last longer than your body. Even when you die it's
tickin' five minutes longer." Gerald listened, Gerald nodded, but Gerald's
mind was on football glory. Says Ross, "He forgot about today because he
was so busy thinking about tomorrow."
When Ross moved
the family out of Warren in 1978, Gerald's alienation grew. The Browners were
not well received at Atlanta's Southwest High. They were big-name
carpetbaggers, presumed to be arrogant. Keith and Joey weathered the cold
reception, but Gerald smoldered. "I wasn't used to being around a whole
school of black students," he says. "It wasn't that I didn't like being
with black students, but they would act all ignorant, jealous of me." Not
getting along with students was bad enough; conflict with teachers was worse.
One slapped Gerald his sophomore year for, according to Julia, "running his
provide Gerald with a different kind of academic environment, Ross enrolled him
in the Woodward Academy, an expensive private school near the Atlanta airport.
Outwardly, things seemed to improve. Gerald starred on the football team his
junior year, and Woodward won the state AAA championship. Woodward might have
done the same in 1981—Gerald was Atlanta player-of-the-week five straight weeks
that season and was regarded as one of the top five schoolboy linemen in the
country—but then everything unraveled.
It would've taken
a board of inquiry to sort out the charges and countercharges. His coach
claimed that Gerald was skipping Monday workouts for college recruiting visits,
that he wasn't a team player and that he was injuring his teammates in
practice. "I would knock 'em out or something," Gerald concedes. The
Browners countered that Gerald was being used, that the academy was covering up
low grades that would render him ineligible for football at a major college.
"They wanted him to play, but I didn't," says Ross. "That went
against everything we believe in." For whatever reasons, Gerald shocked
Atlanta high school football fans by quitting the team the week before the
first round of the 1981 state playoffs. In quick order, Woodward lost the game,
Gerald became a center of controversy and Ross and Julia angrily pulled him out
of the school.
In 1982 Gerald
graduated from Benjamin Mays High, but his problems pursued him to the
University of Georgia. Lacking the 2.0 grade point average needed for varsity
eligibility, Gerald was redshirted as a freshman. He withdrew in his second
quarter and enrolled in Butler County Community College in El Dorado, Kans. He
was back home within weeks. "He said it was too far from home," says
Ross, "so I sent him to Grambling." Actually, Ross took Gerald on a
cross-country trip, talking to various coaches, sometimes on campuses,
sometimes in airports. He chose Grambling for Gerald because he thought Coach
Eddie Robinson could provide the discipline Gerald so obviously needed. Gerald
would have no scholarship, and he would have to skip football for a year, but
he would be back on the road to his degree and to the pros.
reported too late for Grambling's 1983 summer session and ended up never
attending a class. After working for seven weeks in Grambling, he returned to
Atlanta. "I'm really sorry," Robinson said. "I think the boy has a
lot of possibilities—if he can get his plans together."